Karate was introduced to the United Kingdom in 1956 when Vernon Bell held his first Karate class in his parents’ garden. Several years later Fred Gille opened a Karate club in Liverpool in 1959, after attending a course run by Bell. An early student of Gille was Frank Cope, who would go on to become a long time member of the Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB). He would become a pioneer of British Shotokan Karate, especially in the Liverpool area becoming one of the first black belts in Britain.
Christened Francis Warren Cope at birth, he was born on 28 November 1934. Not much is known about his early life. He had served in the Royal Engineers corp of the British army as part of his National Service. In 1957 he completed his service, leaving with the rank of private.
Cope’s first real exposure to the martial arts was via Scotsman Jock Mackay who taught Jujitsu. Cope remembered training on an old stained mattress used for breaking falls during throws. He also remembered the amount of dust thrown after each fall. Cope trained with Mackay for around six months.
A little later Cope was introduced by a friend to Judo. He trained with Freddie Wainwright at the East Ham Residents Association Judo Club. Wainwright was a member of the British Judo Council. Occasionally Judo legend Kenshiro Abbe would visit the club.
Cope had first heard about Karate around 1955. However, it was not until 1962 that he had his first taste of Karate. Vernon Bell held a course at Harold House, Liverpool, in an attempt to spread interest in the new martial art. Cope, who had borrowed Hidetaka Nishiyama’s book “Karate: The Art of Empty-Hand Fighting” from the public library was initially not interested in taking the course. He did, however, turn up and take the course.
On 1st March 1962 Cope joined the British Karate Federation (BKF) Liverpool dojo, training under Fred Gille. At the time he was aged twenty-seven and was working as a toolmaker. The club would eventually relocate in 1963 to the YMCA Red Triangle Club.
In the early days of the Liverpool, dojo gradings were conducted by Bell and sometimes by Japanese instructor, Tetsujji Murakami, who was based in France. Murakami would travel to the UK to conduct courses and grading examinations. Under his instruction Cope progressed through the ranks.
1964 saw the BKF become the official agents of the JKA in the UK. The following year saw masters Taiji Kase, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shirai arrive in Britain to give a series of demonstrations, showcasing the technical skills of the JKA. On 23rd April 1965, they arrived in Liverpool to give a demonstration at the St. Georges Hall. All in attendance were in awe at the technical skill on display.
Cope was among the students who trained with Kanazawa on his return visit Liverpool on 12th June 1965. Kanazawa conducted a week-long course. While Murakami had been an excellent teacher, Kanazawa, a product of the famed JKA Instructor Course, brought professionalism and great technical skill to his teaching.
In September 1965 Cope attended another week-long course conducted by Kanazawa at Lilleshaw Hall, Shropshire. At the end of the course Cope was graded to 4th kyu by Kanazawa.
In November 1965 Enoeda took up residency in Liverpool, teaching at the famed Red Triangle Club. This was a momentous in the development of Karate in Liverpool and in the United Kingdom as a whole. Initially, there was a drop in membership at the dojo, in part due to the spirited training Enoeda required from his students. However, the students that remained and bought into his style of teaching would eventually become some of the highest-ranked Shotokan karateka in the UK.
To help support Enoeda’s stay in the Liverpool area, it was decided that a second dojo would be opened in Birkenhead, on the other side of the Mersey River from Liverpool. Cope still only a 4th kyu took over the running of the club in 1965. Both Kanazawa and Enoeda would visit the dojo to conduct classes.
1965 saw the formation of the Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB), after some members decided to break away from the BKF. Many BKF members, especially from the Northern clubs were unhappy with the organisation of the BKF. Kanazawa and Enoeda became the Chief Instructors of the organisation. Around two-thirds of the membership joined the new KUGB. Cope joined and remained a member for over twenty years becoming one of the first westerners able to grade for the JKA.
In 1966/67 Cope was graded to 1st Dan by Kanazawa. He would go on to get his 2nd Dan in 1969 and his 3rd Dan in 1972. He would eventually reach the rank of 8th Dan.
Cope eventually left the KUGB setting up his own association, the British Martial Arts Association (BMAA). He became the association’s Chief Instructor.
Through his association with Kanazawa Cope gained a deep appreciation of the finer details of Karate technique. He became well known for his analysis of techniques. Being progressive in his thinking his courses, mainly in the UK and Ireland, including groundwork using techniques he had learnt from Judo and Jujitsu. In many ways, he was ahead of his time practising things that would not gain major popularity for many years. He was also considered a great teacher, being able to identify a student’s weakness and provide a way for them to fix it.
Due to his advancing age Cope took a back seat in actively teaching, rather leaving that aspect to his sons Frank Jr and Ian. He was still involved in conducting grading exams.
On 29th December 2016, Frank Cope died aged 82 following a bout of illness.